Saturday, February 14, 2009

Have a happy, healthy Valentine's Day

by Shannon Mercer, Student Global Aids Campaign

This past week the Student Global AIDS Campaign sat at a – rather well decorated—table in Frist, selling Valentine's Grams with a message:

In America around 40,000 people are infected with HIV every year. Nearly half of these infections occur in people under the age of 25. While abstinence is the only way to guarantee 100% protection, safe sexual practices, such as using condoms, are also essential in curbing this epidemic. On Valentine's Day and on any other day of the year, please protect yourself and others from unwanted STD's like HIV/AIDS. Be educated; Be aware; Be safe and have a Happy Valentine's Day.

And yes, we did sell condoms.

Despite the seemingly controversial nature of this fundraiser we received great press from the Daily Princetonian and had only positive reactions from students during the tabling process. Why? Because there is nothing inherently wrong with educating people about safety.

There was a time when it was acceptable to write sexual education off as a way to instruct others in immoral behavior. This is not that time. AIDS is, more so than any other affliction, our generation's disease. It is our problem to fix. But, we can't fix it if we assume that people will simply abstain from intercourse.

In 2007 alone there were 2.5 million new infections to add to the 33.2 million people worldwide living with HIV (UNAIDS). Last year 2.1 million people died because of this unthinkable epidemic and what do we do as a nation? Should we talk about abstinence? The President's Emergency Plan for AIDS relief (PEPFAR) allocated (as of its July 2008 re authorization) around $48 billion over a 5 year time period to support treatment, prevention and education about the HIV/AIDS epidemic. In 2006 the initial PEPFAR budget earmarked about 33% of prevention funds for abstinence-only education in the 15 countries it contributes to. This proposal was an outrage to organizations like the Student Global AIDS Campaign, the Institute of Medicine, and the U.S. Government Accountability Office. Because of this, the allocation of funding to abstinence-only education was eliminated in 2008. In the countries that PEPFAR money benefits you cannot afford to limit sexual education to a sentence: Premarital sex is wrong. You have to eliminate the pervasive rumors that raping young babies will cure you of AIDS, that AIDS is not transmitted sexually and that AIDS is not a problem. The only way to do that is to get beyond the abstinence spiel and tell people more. Abstinence is not the answer; education is.

More recently the Hawaii House Committee on Education passed two sexual education bills: the first rejected the allocation of funding to abstinence-only education and the second placed government funding in the hands of programs that emphasize pregnancy and STI prevention. State representative Marilyn Lee is quoted as saying, "The bottom line of what these bills are saying is abstinence-only education has been shown to be ineffective and many states have rejected it."

It seems that more and more people are choosing to put their lives in the hands of facts:

Fact: Global rates of HIV infection are increasing steadily.

Fact: CDC funded education programs in the U.S. have contributed to the leveling out of the HIV infection rate since 2000.

Fact: The CDC recommends condoms for the prevention of HIV/AIDS transmission (along with the prevention of other STIs).

We are not saying that abstinence is wrong. In fact, the SGAC still advocates that the only way to guarantee your total safety from STIs like HIV/AIDS is abstinence. We are saying that abstinence-only education has been proven ineffective. In order to save lives people must be taught that they have safe options during sexual intercourse.

We cannot afford to be naïve about pre-marital sex. It will happen. It happened in barns and attics in puritan towns, it happened in my pre-colonial Pacific culture -- where women were allowed to visit "bachelor huts" to gain valuable practice for their future married lives, it most definitely happened in 1960's and it is happening now. What's important to recognize is that now, with diseases like AIDS, there are more risks to leaving people uneducated. Whether you believe in abstinence or not, our responsibility is to preserve and protect health and life.

Encouraging people to seek deeper meaning in their relationships is wonderful: intimate conversation, a romantic dinner, spiritual connection. Handing someone a condom does not preclude the prioritization of these experiences. Handing someone a condom does not encourage "random hook-ups". Handing someone a condom most definitely does not support unhealthy emotional and spiritual practices. This Valentine's Day the SGAC hoped that, in the offering of condoms and prevention education, we would be allowing people to send messages of friendship and love: I care about you, protect yourself. There is absolutely nothing wrong – morally or otherwise – with that.

So, if you decide to take a walk down Nassau Street hand-in-hand with the person you love today, having a condom on your dresser back in Dodd will not cheapen the experience. What it does mean: if faced with the decision to have sex you'll be equipped to maintain your personal responsibility.

Be responsible and caring. I hope you have a love-filled day.

If you want more information please visit the sites below:

The Amplify movement

CDC basic HIV/AIDS statistics

2007 UNAIDS epidemic update's factsheet on PEPFAR's results page

Institute of Medicine's PEPFAR evaluation

U.S. Government Accountability Office

Washington Post report on AIDS infection rates in the U.S.


At February 14, 2009 at 8:06 PM , Anonymous Emily said...

This is beautifully written. Well done!

At February 15, 2009 at 2:04 PM , Anonymous Susan said...

Well done. I have heard something similar to this message every year at Princeton, from Valentines Day campaigns to various other health-ed and awareness days. Cutting through the repetition, I think this version says it best.

In my personal opinion, even the argument to be made in favor of abstinence (both a strong moral and practical argument, I believe) comes across best through comprehensive sex ed, not through abstinence-only programs which leave out large and important elements of truth.


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